Paul Morrison reflects on 40 years in the “men’s movement”.
—This is article #98 in our series of #100Voices4Men and boys
I have been in or running men’s groups now for forty of my nearly seventy years. They have been a rich arena of support, warmth and understanding, a place to be challenged lovingly, a place to explore and re-shape my sense of myself as a man and as a human being. Now, as I watch myself grow older with other men who are also growing older, life continues to throw up its challenges, new layers of vulnerability are exposed. There is no shortage of material for discussion and exploration, no lack of questions to be answered, in these our mature years.
We began meeting in response to the women close to us who were embracing feminism – the second wave – in the early seventies. Women were demanding equality, demanding to be taken seriously in the workplace, challenging the widespread assumptions I had grown up with: men as providers, breadwinners; women as domestic labourers and child-rearers; men as rational; women as emotional; men as powerful in the world; women as keepers of the home; women as passive and as sexual objects; men as active and sexual drivers.
The new women historians were telling us that this gender division of labour wasn’t an inevitable outcome of biological difference. It hadn’t always been this way. Even during the war recently fought women had taken on all kinds of roles for which they previously been deemed unfit.
We supported the women’s movement
We saw the justice of the women’s movement: it was incontrovertible that the wider world we lived in was run for the most part by men, and that women’s countervailing authority in the arenas of family and childcare was largely demeaned, patronised and undervalued, as was emotionality itself. Some of us were confused, feeling at times that we carried the sins – and the privileges – of millennia of patriarchy on our shoulders. At the same time we wanted to resist that guilt, to start again from where we were, and find a way to be as men that acknowledged the history and supported the fight for equality, but didn’t mean we had to be forever ashamed of our man-ness.
To begin to look at this, we needed to talk to one another. We needed the support of other men. We borrowed the model of consciousness-raising from feminism, and formed a group. It was an experiment. It didn’t have a label or an ideology, It was men talking to one another about their hopes and fears.
To start with these conversations carried a sense of our identities being under threat. Before long it grew into a positive sense of wanting to re-shape ourselves and our lives. We liked being together. We liked talking together. We discovered that it was safe to share our vulnerability with one another, when so much male upbringing had been supposedly about bullying, competing and getting one over on one another. What had been once defensive became an exciting and deeply meaningful re-ordering of priorities. Feminism instead of being a threat became an opportunity: to move out of rigidly prescribed masculine roles and allow ourselves more emotional openness; to seek closer and more engaged relationships with our children; to be truly equal in our relationships with our partners.
Some of us committed ourselves to share childcare and housework. Amid the joy and pride in discovering that we indeed had the capacity for care and nurture, we could at times find ourselves lonely and isolated: the only man in the park with a pushchair; the only guy among the women in the playgroup. We learnt to use the men’s group for support rather than relying always on the women in our lives to emotionally prop us up. Some of us explored the burgeoning humanistic psychotherapy movement, and introduced some of that therapy awareness into the men’s group.
As we bonded and grew in strength and confidence, we felt moved to share our discoveries with other men.
We attended and helped to organise men’s conferences bringing together the men’s groups that were emerging nationally. We founded and produced a magazine, Achilles Heel, intended as a kind of cousin to Spare Rib, which brought in other men and gave a voice to the burgeoning movement, and to the re-thinking of masculinity that went with it. We organised residential weeks for men and children. We attended demonstrations supporting for example A Woman’s Right to Choose. We founded a men’s centre in a condemned building. We held men’s days, jointly with gay men.
Going public felt scary, a kind of coming out. The press coined the term ‘new man’, something we never claimed for ourselves, wanting not to separate ourselves and to see the humanity in all men. Having invented the term, the press then used it to derogate and patronise us. Some women in the broader feminist movement were hostile, seeing us as using the men’s movement to reclaim their power. Some gay men were also angry at what they saw as an attempt by heterosexual men to claim victim status. But many understood what we were about and were supportive.
We were cautious about building a national organisation. We didn’t want to set up yet another hierarchical structure with middle class white men at the top. Men’s task at that time was to go inside and into the family; it was women who were staking a claim for access to the wider world.
In the years since, I have watched many of the skilled jobs that sustained the industrial trade unions be eviscerated, and with them the role of men as sole or main breadwinner. I have seen many men whose dignity and self-respect depended on those jobs become stranded and embittered. Rates of male suicide and mental breakdown rose as a result, many men lacking the resources, internal and external, to socialise their hurt and anger..
From lad-ism to dads’ rights
I have watched the growth of ‘lad-ism’ as the dominant male culture, retaining many of the cultural props of the older culture – pubs and clubs, gambling, watching sport, and a kind of exaggerated sexism with irony – but without the sense of duty and responsibility that the role of bread-winner offered and could take pride in. It has felt to me like a faux-identity, transitional, and ultimately a dead end. It reached its apogee in the banks and in the City, and I would hope it was finally losing its thrall.
I have watched the emergence of some brave men’s campaigns against the out-dated prevailing wisdoms of the divorce and family courts that men were second-rate parents, at best an optional extra, and should stick to being providers. They were fighting sexist institutions that appeared to favour individual women, but in the long run trapped them in their role. So these campaigns needed to set a careful tone. Sometimes they suffered from coming across as anti-feminist or even misogynist, when to my mind they were questioning the same structures that we were.
I have seen role models for men in the mainstream change enormously. Men are expected now to attend births, change nappies, and be engaged with children in a way previously unacknowledged or unthinkable. There is more tolerance of men’s emotional expression. Male culture is more open, more inclusive of difference. There’s currently a mini-explosion of ‘men’s work’ on a whole range of issues: suicide; men’s health; gang culture; AIDs among third world men; mentoring and role models for boys; rites of passage for older men; post-natal depression; aging. To grow up as a man in the UK today means hugely different challenges and choices to those we inherited growing up in the fifties.
I feel proud and blessed to have lived this journey; to have played a part in opening up these questions. We have made a start. We have a way to go.
—Picture credit: brian
You can find all of the #100Voices4Men articles that will be published in the run up to International Men’s Day 2014 by clicking on this link—#100Voices4Men—and follow the discussion on twitter by searching for #100Voices4Men.
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